CURRENT AFFAIRS, SEX AND SEXUALITY

Slut Walk and Slut Talk

By Jen Thorpe 

The Slut Walks are coming to town. This Saturday in Cape Town women will march in solidarity with rape survivors, and the constitutional right of women to wear whatever they want without the threat of violence. These marches will mirror similar marches across the world, which started in Canada earlier this year after a police man implied that women wearing a short skirt, or revealing clothes are asking for rape.

In some feminist circles there is a lot of concern about this march precisely because of the medium of the message – clothes. Clothes have a very particular language that is sometimes more powerful than the language we use to describe what we’re wearing. The simplest example of this is the fact that (most of us) don’t turn up to work in our pyjamas. Why? Because pyjamas say something different about our intention than more formal attire does. So, we must admit that clothing says something. Sometimes, we choose it particularly because of this.

So what does revealing clothing say? What is the message that it makes to the world? Two books are really worth reading on this issue. The first is Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs which argues that the rise of raunch culture has powerfully shaped women’s freedoms for the worse. I based my Masters thesis on this book and looked at raunch culture at Rhodes University. Using diary research I worked with eight young women who attended ‘Dress to Get Laid’ parties at Rhodes.

The name of these parties doesn’t leave much to the imagination and I bet you’re imagining now what they were wearing. Clothes ranged from bunny suits to fish net stockings. Very few women wore clothes that they would wear on an ordinary day on campus. As interesting was what the men at the parties were wearing – their regular clothes: clothes that would be seen on campus the very next day.

So what does that say about dressing to ‘get laid’? To me, that says that women have to make a lot more effort to put themselves on display, to literally make their bodies an object on display for consumption by men who are not required to do the same. What it also said was that clothing was an indicator of intention – that you could dress to get laid meant you might also be able to dress for success (thanks Roxette), or dress not to get laid.

The second book worth reading is Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls: The Rise of Sexism. Walters argues that we are systematically programmed to disempower ourselves as women by a culture that requires that we dumb ourselves down, or dress in a manner akin to pornography. Dressing to fit into the pink, pert or pornographic culture holds us back from doing things that feminists fought so hard for us to be able to do. Her perspective shows that the clothes we wear have a language to them which communicates messages to onlookers.

The meaning of our clothing is not chosen by us. The meaning of our clothing is produced, and reproduced, through the media, advertising and television. When we choose to embark on an act of subversion using our clothing, we must always acknowledge that we are up for some fairly strong resistance from the observers on the outside.

These observers are often key to our performance of our identities through our clothes.  This is why we can where our pyjamas at home when nobody is there to perform for, and why we wear different pyjamas if the people in our homes are lovers or guests. We very rarely dress for ourselves – in fact, it is almost impossible to. We dress to project meaning, and to create our identities through a limited set of options.

Being in a state of undress also creates meaning. The intention of Slut Walk is to promote the understanding that women can dress as ‘sluts’ if they choose to, and they don’t deserve rape. This is inarguable – nobody is ever responsible for their own rape. Rape is an act of power, not of sex. Your sex or sexuality does not imply a desire to be raped, nor does it invite it.

I believe that a Slut Walk on its own can’t achieve anything long-term (though I have no doubt that they will be a fun day out, and I agree we should do more to support survivors of rape).  However, I believe we also should engage with the meanings around our clothes, the myths about sexuality and dress, and begin to discuss them. Communication requires that people have the same understanding of the meaning of language – without a shared understanding of what you mean when you say something your meaning is lost. In the same way we need to talk about the language of our clothing. If these discussions are not a part of the slut walk, then its achievements will be sadly limited.

The organisers have control over their intention. Their control message that women participating make with their clothing is something less certain.

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3 thoughts on “Slut Walk and Slut Talk”

  1. Hi Jen, from my background in human rights and hermeneutics I would suggest that the #slutwalk should be viewed as an international metaphor for EVERYONE voicing resistance & anger against ANY FORM OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE. The everyone indicating solidarity and the recognition that everyone all over the world may become a victim of this and we can only fight, resist and show our shared pain and our strength by coming together and expressing our outrage! SLUTWALK in this context has a broader contextual interpretation! We could even go so far to “deconstruct” the word ‘slut’ & reinvent the meaning thereof to actively engage & resist ANY FORM OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE! Just a crazy though from me?

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  2. And here I go again, I do agree that we should engage with the meanings around our clothes, the myths about sexuality and dress, and begin to discuss them. This may even raise other issues around consumerism and labeling and the choice we make when we buy clothes from for example China were it was properly manufactured under horrible anti-human / labour laws or we buy the original Louis Vutton (I don’t even know how to spell it) and 60% of the children in our country is living under the poverty line?
    Then there is the business suit attire! Why do women have to dress like men when they have the same jobs as them. Again a number of random thought by the crazy me:) Forgive me!

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  3. Dear Jen,

    A must read on the Semantics of the Slut Walk by Gillian Schutte http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/734.1 via The South African Civil Society Information Service:

    Schutte beautifully argues,

    “For me the adoption of this word as the signifier to this global feminine rebellion is directly rooted in language similar to the poststructuralist feminist movement of the 1970s. This movement was born out of a common need for all women to create a language that escapes the clutches of the panoptical patriarch that has established himself as a jailor in our collective feminine consciousness.”

    and

    “It is a manifestation of our collective desire to no longer be obedient. It speaks of necessary subversiveness. It also tells men that their sexual abuses of women will no longer be tolerated. It unites women in a common sisterhood and it raises our voices in a collective feminine language such that we will no longer be spoken for.”

    Wow, beautifully written and well substantiated!

    After reading this, I cannot see any reason for objecting against the use of the word slut.

    Kind regards
    A proud slut

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